“This fort doesn't seem to be built by humans, but giants!” exclaimed my friend Haroon as we treaded exhaustively across the never-ending expanse of the mighty Rohtas Fort. And his words were certainly credible as the Mughal Emperor Jahangir had also once said about this construction that, “the strength of it cannot be imagined.” The Rohtas Fort, located near the city of Jhelum in Punjab, remains to date an epitome of military fortifications in South Asia - with a very few fortresses, if any, matching it in form and area.
The fort was constructed during the reign of Sher Shah Suri and took about seven years to complete (1541-1548). It expands well over five kilometres in circumference, walled by massive fortifications; and an inside wall separates the more elite portion of the fort. A village was settled outside this inner boundary, and continues on to date. The fort, which stands on an elevation overlooking the Potohar plateau, could be entered via twelve gates, and consists of a number of structures. The rationale for having this fort constructed was Sher Shah’s will to keep Emperor Humayun away, who had taken refuge in Iran after his defeat at the hands of Suri; and also to keep the local population of Ghakkars in check, who were traditional loyalists to the Mughal throne.
Though the fort was never breached, and also remained relatively steady in the face of natural adversities, it was surrendered without a fight when Mughals reasserted their hold in India. Sher Shah was dead by then, and the Mughals who followed could only find occasional use for the fort. With the construction of the Attock fort by Akbar, this structure near Dina also lost much of its strategic importance. Though during the Sikh rule in Punjab the fort was used at certain points, it has existed more as an imposing historical site. Still considered the mightiest military citadel in the region, blending Indian and Turkish architectural designs, it was enlisted in 1997 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Covering the whole fort on foot is an exercise in futility, there’s so much to see and never enough time or energy. A better idea then is to explore the inner portion (the properly designated tourist site of the greater complex) and let go of the scattered structures spread in the surrounding hamlet, most of which are in their original form. Due to the strength of the buildings, great efforts haven’t been made for conservation.
The fort is basically a never-ending site of massive boundary walls, a web of interlinking staircases, scattered wells, lonesome buildings and swathes of bushes. As you enter the main portion of the fort via the Chandwali gate, the vision of the whole area opens up to you. Chandwali gate is named after a sage who worked incessantly in the construction process but refused to take a penny, and who legend holds, is also buried just outside the gate. Though there are various compounds and rooms to peek into, the main structures in the area are the Shahi Masjid, Rani Mahal and the Haveli of Maan Singh. Only the former was part of the original plan, while the latter two were added in the Mughal era.
The mosque is described to have once been a beautiful structure of Islamic architecture, though it has now lost much of its glory. The Rani Mahal has faced the wrath of time, and only a portion of its original structure survives. This pattern is followed by the haveli of Maan Singh, though the ascent to the top room with its view is an experience nevertheless. Other main features of the fort are the baolis or stepped-wells, which had the capacity to store water for days. The shahi baoli is located inside this inner block of the fort, meant for royals. The greatest baoli, however, is located on the other end of this sprawling complex, with stairs leading you to it.
A tourist information site has also been set up on the premises of the fort. The good news for tourists is that the buildings and structures of Rohtas are freely accessible, and a great opportunity for those interested in exploring this unique fort, one of the many legacies of Sher Shah Suri. Just avoid visiting it in the summers, when the temperatures get excruciatingly high.
Though the fort could never be put to use against Humayun as Sher Shah Suri planned, the Mughal emperor died about a year after regaining power. It’s an interesting fact of history that the stairs from which Humayun tumbled and died in Delhi’s Purana Qila, were in fact also built by Sher Shah Suri.
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